When he heard that Michael Jordan was coming back, Paul Pierce
upped his off-season workouts from two a day to three--the third
being his "Michael Jordan session." At his gym in Los Angeles,
Pierce acted like a little kid again, pretending to shoot
last-second jumpers over his idol. "The whole time I'm working
out, I'm thinking, Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan," says Pierce,
the skilled 24-year-old Boston Celtics swingman. "Michael sets
the standard, even at his age. I'm not in there saying Vince
Carter or Kobe Bryant."
Even during Jordan's three years in retirement, the league
belonged to him. No one played like Mike, sold sneakers like
Mike, drew ratings like Mike--delivered like Mike. Burgeoning
stars, no matter how preposterously good, squared off for a title
that both elevated and diminished them: the Next Jordan.
Now Michael is back, dressed strangely in the blue of the
Washington Wizards. Having exited a champion after each of his
last six full NBA seasons, the player who was unassailable is a
38-year-old small forward on a middling team who hasn't played a
league game in 40 months. For 82 days or nights this season, his
tendons and hamstrings willing, Jordan will face younger men
looking to challenge him one-on-one. Further, for the first time
in a decade there is doubt about the outcome. No longer assured
of athletic superiority, Jordan is the equivalent of Muhammad Ali
going into the ring against a succession of George Foremans from
October to April--or longer, if he can somehow outwit them.
For those who like a suspenseful plot, this incarnation of His
Airness is going to be more intriguing than his first two put
together. As we look ahead to his major bouts, it's important to
remember that Jordan is not after mere moral victories. "I don't
think he's coming back because he misses the game or to be one of
the guys," Pierce says. "I think he's coming back to dominate
VS. BRYON RUSSELL AND THE JAZZ
NOV. 16 AT WASHINGTON
This reunion will immediately incite more debate about why Jordan
couldn't leave well enough alone. He departed on a perfect note
last time, the argument goes, swishing his last shot over Russell
to win the 1997-98 NBA championship. But let's get one thing
straight about that perfect ending. It was preceded by an obvious
foul. If anyone of lesser stature had shoved Russell aside as
blatantly as Jordan did, we all would have chuckled at his
Even Russell laughed it off last month in training camp.
"Everybody's telling [Michael] he pushed off," said Russell, 30,
"so he's coming back to redeem himself." Don't doubt, however,
that Russell too is out to erase that last, posterized image from
Game 6: There he is, hunched over and helpless, Jordan ascendant.
A tenacious swingman beginning his ninth NBA season, Russell is
the rare defender eager to challenge top scorers. If Jordan spins
past him or bodies him away, Russell won't give up on the play.
It will be intriguing to see whether Jordan, in the interest of
self-preservation, develops a less levitational game, like those
of his two fellow Dream Teamers on the Jazz, Karl Malone and John
Stockton. Jordan struggled with a strained left foot during the
preseason. Malone has missed seven games in his 16 seasons;
Stockton 22 in his 17. "They play on the floor, and that's good,"
Utah coach Jerry Sloan says. "When you play on the floor, as
opposed to playing in the air, you play with more control, and
you're more likely to avoid injuries."
If Michael follows that model, Russell may deliver on the
preseason promise he made regarding Jordan's next attempt at a
game-winner: "I'll block it."
VS. VINCE CARTER AND THE RAPTORS
DEC. 16 AT TORONTO
They are fellow North Carolina alums, but they circle each other
as coolly as rivals for prom king. At Jordan's comeback press
conference he twice mentioned Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady as
his challengers but neglected to raise the name of Carter. (A
simple oversight, Jordan said later.) Speculation had been that
Jordan would make a run at bringing Carter to the Wizards next
summer, but Carter nixed that by signing a $94 million extension
that will keep him in Toronto through 2007-08.
The two players diverge in telling ways. Never would Jordan have
run off to attend his college graduation during the playoffs,
returning only five hours before the tip-off of a Game 7, as the
24-year-old Carter did during the Eastern Conference semifinals
last May. The issue had nothing to do with Carter's so-so
performance that night--he scored 20 points on 6-for-18 shooting
and missed the decisive last shot in an 88-87 loss to the 76ers
in Philadelphia--but everything to do with his teammates. They had
to question the commitment of their leader, who could have
participated in the graduation ceremony over the summer.
Although Carter is almost Jordan's equal as a scorer, Jordan long
ago realized that even he could have bad shooting nights, so he
worked to strengthen his defense. Last year Jordan said defense
was a fundamental flaw in Carter's game. At the first of their
three meetings this season, when Jordan isn't blanketing Carter,
he will bait him into forcing shots that will disrupt the
Raptors' attack. Carter is not likely to do the same to Jordan.
As one NBA scout puts it, "Vince gives me the impression he'd
just want to outscore Michael."
VS. KOBE BRYANT AND THE LAKERS
FEB. 12 AT LOS ANGELES
For Jordan, the confrontation could not be more eerie. Facing
him will be Phil Jackson, his former Chicago Bulls coach, who
understands his game better than anyone; Shaquille O'Neal, his
successor as the league's most dominant player, who won't
hesitate to foul Jordan hard when he drives to the hoop; and
Bryant, who has made Michael his life study and, at 23, has
blossomed in his idol's absence.
This matchup will mean the world to Bryant, and he will attack
Jordan at both ends of the floor. From watching Jordan so much on
tape, Bryant has picked up a lot of his mannerisms, including the
way he speaks in interviews. "I just look at it as the Lakers
versus the Wizards," Bryant says, publicly ignoring the
individual matchup, much as Jordan used to do when discussing his
own rivals. "It's about my being a leader for this team and
making sure my teammates are playing well, making sure they're in
the flow of the game. It's not about me trying to prove something
to him or to anybody else."
To Jordan, however, a vow to set up his teammates is no mere
platitude. With his team woefully undermanned, expect him to draw
the defense and dish, in the post and on the break, in the
far-fetched hope that a hot hand will carry the Wizards to an
upset. Jackson may even cut his friend some slack. "I doubt I'm
going to junk up the defense to match Michael's game," he says.
"He's got one performance at Staples, and I'd love to see him do
VS. SCOTTIE PIPPEN AND THE TRAIL BLAZERS
FEB. 27 AT WASHINGTON
For the first time Batman battles Robin. As keen as Jordan is
about challenges, this is one he will especially want to win--to
remind Pippen who was boss when they were teammates and who
remains boss today. If their relationship has a parallel, it's
the one between Patrick Ewing and his Georgetown protege, Alonzo
Mourning. No matter how close Mourning's Miami Heat came to
overtaking Ewing's New York Knicks in their playoff struggles,
Ewing almost invariably gained the upper hand.
While the Blazers should prevail, the 36-year-old Pippen is
unlikely to expose his diminished skills by engaging Jordan
head-on. Pippen is one of many former Bulls who functioned best
as complements to Jordan, and Robin is already deferring again.
"Michael can come back and still be one of the top players--maybe
the top player," Pippen says. "No reason he can't."
VS. JAMAL CRAWFORD AND THE BULLS
MARCH 1 AT CHICAGO
Jordan is racing against Bulls general manager Jerry Krause to
see if he can construct a championship team in Washington before
Krause builds another one in Chicago. Jordan hasn't said as much,
but he doesn't have to. He claims he was forced to retire after
the 1997-98 season because Krause declined to retain Jackson as
coach, effectively breaking up the dynasty. At the very least
Jordan wants to embarrass Chicago in each of the four
Bulls-Wizards games (of which this will be the third).
Jordan's summer workouts in Chicago served the purpose of honing
not only his body but also his patience. The development of young
players will be the key to whatever success the Wizards have this
season, and it will be up to Jordan to help his inexperienced
teammates the way he has helped Jamal Crawford, the Bulls'
21-year-old point guard. When they played on the same pickup team
over the summer, Jordan and Crawford went some 20 straight games
without a loss. Jordan was so happy with Crawford's progress that
he tried to acquire him in a trade. Crawford, in turn, was struck
by Jordan's military approach to basketball. "Even when he was
playing, his shirt was always tucked in perfectly," the 6'5",
190-pound Crawford says. "I came into the gym one time at 6:30 in
the morning, and he was already there working out. The thing he
kept telling me about my game was to just be simple. Be basic.
Make the right decision."
In July, Crawford tore his left ACL during a workout and
underwent reconstructive surgery. He talks of making a quick
recovery and returning to the Bulls in February. If so, this
would be his debut against his mentor. That--along with a sold-out
United Center, a chance to show up Krause and the prospect of an
easy win--will only deepen Jordan's motivation. No one channels
emotions into his performance like MJ. Look for him to drop 40.
VS. TRACY MCGRADY AND THE MAGIC
MARCH 8 AT ORLANDO
It will be late in the season, and Jordan will be weary, maybe
exhausted, but look who'll be at the center circle to greet him:
the 22-year-old McGrady, believed by many to be the best player
in the East--pending Jordan's revival. "I'm going to play my butt
off against him," McGrady says. "I'll forget who he is. If I
don't, it's over before it starts."
This will be the fourth and final regular-season meeting between
Jordan and McGrady. A playoff berth may be at stake for
Washington, and the whole league will be paying attention.
McGrady is nearly the athlete that Jordan used to be. He can jump
high, he can run all night, and he is serious about every facet
of the game--rebounding, passing, defense, scoring inside and out.
At 6'8" he is two inches taller than Jordan. He should be quick
enough to hassle Jordan on drives to the basket and long enough
to contest Jordan's jump shots. Can Jordan overcome so much
energy? For the player who made winning look easy, it is not
going to seem easy anymore.
At the other end of the floor Jordan will have to guard McGrady
or Grant Hill. If Jordan can rise to this challenge, his Wizards
teammates will see the ultimate results of hard work and staying
composed under pressure. That's why a matchup like this one with
McGrady is crucial not only to Jordan but also to the franchise:
Jordan can show the young Wizards what it really means to be like
"He's turned out to be a lot cooler than I thought," says 6'11"
Washington rookie Kwame Brown, whom Jordan made the first high
school player to be taken with the No. 1 pick in the draft.
"Everybody talks about how he will jump down your throat whenever
you make a mistake, but it hasn't been like that. He's been
For Jordan--as well as his teammates, and those of us watching--the
struggles of this season will clarify what makes him tick. Think
about Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46, Nolan Ryan
throwing his seventh no-hitter at 44, a hobbled John Elway
winning two Super Bowls after his 37th birthday, Ali knocking out
Foreman at 32. Remember: Not one of them was as dominant as
Jordan used to be. "I just want to enjoy this moment," says
Jordan, "because I know it's coming to an end."
The ones who play as if there's no tomorrow--they're the most
dangerous of all.